By Brent Hamoud
It’s nice to go to Bethlehem this time of year as starry imaginations lead us to the site of the first Christmas. Popular depictions of the Nativity story invariably include scenes of a pregnant young lady and her anxious husband searching for a resting place among crowded inns before finally boarding up in a rudimentary stable. As the familiar drama plays out, we are left with a classic image of the baby Messiah laying his sweet head in a manger alongside Mary and Joseph and a company of shepherds, angels, and wise men (and even some friendly beasts!). Such a picture radiates unlikely beauty in the softness of a silent night where all is calm, all is bright.
But is this how it really looked? Perhaps our classical portrayal of the Christmas story is based more on what we want to see than what Scripture describes. Even so, my discussion is less concerned with exegeting the Nativity narrative and more interested in looking through the gospel to consider an urgent contemporary moral failure, because the story of Bethlehem’s babies today is indeed a troubling tale.
There was no room in the inn for Christ on that first Christmas, and Bethlehem babies today find themselves effectively born into a world without “room.” Our globe is a system of nation-states, but Bethlehem is not part of one. Its babies are stateless newborns with stateless parents; they are the youngest victims of a Palestinian crisis of nonbelonging and nonrecognition. This blatant injustice happening in royal David’s city should unsettle us at Christmastime and every time.
Bethlehem sits in the heart of Palestine and its residents have long been the people of the land. Christ’s birthplace is among the places Palestinians have long called home, but home has become a site of hardship. It bears the brunt of the 20th century projects to subject lands, divide territories, and organize populations within a modern political phenomenon: the nation-state system. We can debate the virtue and vice of nation-states until next Christmas, but there’s no dispute that events of last century have left millions of Palestinians this century on the outside. Whether residing in their homelands or displaced in foreign lands, there is no formal room for Palestinians in the community of nation-states. Bethlehemites are among a people who experience a state of stateless where even things as sacred as falling in love, getting married, and building a lide together can be forbidden.
I acknowledge the varying positions on the status of Palestinian statehood. It’s certainly proper to assess different arguments about the complex dilemma, but practical realities clearly reveal a statelessness status quo. Palestinians are denied the chance to issue their own currency, control their own borders, or commission their own army for national security. Is there any semblance of state sovereignty here? No, and the reasoning for this is no mystery.
Bethlehem today is not the way any place should be, but some want it to languish this way. Palestinians largely missed out on nation-statehood in their homeland and instead have been handed occupation. Rather than nationals of a nation-state far too many are victims of an apartheid system where “Jewish Israeli control over demographics, political power, and land has long guided government policy.” The situation is truly intolerable, and future generations will wonder how our generations could tolerate such injustice for so long. I understand that some emphatically believe Israel is not in fact an apartheid state. I also realize that some believe Santa Clause is real.
This predicament is not a mere matter of chronic inconvenience; life in the absence of a recognized state is brutally consequential. History has fashioned a world where people are only treated as fully human if they possess citizenship built on the legal frameworks of nationality. (This is why losing your passport abroad is a really big deal!) Human rights are predicated on the idea that nation-states function as the primary instruments for upholding rights and extending protections. For this reason, the right to nationality is effectively a needed gateway to all other human rights. Though it’s bad to be part of a cruel nation-state, it’s downright deplorable to have no nation-state membership at all. The consequences can be deadly.
History provides harrowing lessons of how evil erupts when people are cut off from a state. For example, Nazi Germany committed atrocities in the holocaust against European Jews by first rendering victims stateless and then exterminating them on territories where states had been destroyed. The double whammy of stateless people on stateless territories was a death sentence for millions, and its harshness echoes to the present day. Palestinians regularly endure intolerable abuses, but apparently much can be tolerated when done against stateless people on nation-stateless territories. It’s imperative to remember that these kinds of conditions never occur by chance. They are always a result of sinister schemes.
The dehumanizing statelessness of Bethlehem (as with all of the West Bank and Gaza) is real, and the knowledge that Christ’s birthplace is subjected to oppressive prison walls is enough to ruin Christmas. It stirs the cry, oh come oh come Emmanuel and ransom captives of the State of Israel. Pain is inflicted on the home front as well; Palestinian authorities continue to spin their own versions of the demoralizing governance seen across Arab states. As usual, regular people suffer most as the world lay in sin and error pining.
We must lament how Bethlehem’s stateless babies are born into a modern-day judgment that threatens to cling to them for a lifetime, but Christmas is still Christmas and good news of great joy for all people rings true! Advent shines its light on everything and everyplace to announce an audacious truth of the incarnation, the eternal hope of Emmanuel– God is with us!
Perhaps Christmas is not actually a tender and mild story about a baby of “no room” but actually a radical declaration that God has come to confront oppression and give the dispossessed a place to belong. Mother Mary says it best:
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:52-53).
There is no preferred geography for Christ, but it’s good for the Nativity to take us to Bethlehem. Let’s go in heart to the little town of antiquity as well as the Bethlehem of today- and consider visiting in person if you can! There, in the forsakenness of statelessness, angelic words echo with meaning: Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to people who enjoy his favor!
My Christmas prayer for Bethlehem and beyond is this:
Bless all the dear children
In Your tender care
And fit us for heaven
To live with You there
And Lord, please make all the dear children fit to live with us here as well. Let them belong to a nation-state.
Brent is the Program Lead for the Master of Religion in MENA Studies at ABTS, and he never tires of listening to The Little Drummer Boy.